In 1845, Henry David Thoreau decided to conduct a simple experiment.
For two years, he would embark on a quest to live simply and independently in natural surroundings. He built a small house on a plot of land owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson and went to work on his first book.
The experience had a more profound impact on him than he’d imagined. He later recounted his time in the masterpiece Walden; or, Life in the Woods, in which he argued the merits of simple living in nature. In his own words:
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Now, Thoreau may have taken an extreme position, but there is a lot of sense behind his underlying argument, and it’s worth understanding.
For almost 200,000 years, humans have lived in tribal communities in the broader natural world. The first walled cities only sprang up less than 10,000 years ago. The modern cities of today are even more recent inventions.
Our ecology has evolved far faster than we have been able to keep up, and our bodies and brains aren’t designed to live in the kind of places that we predominantly occupy. We may have adjusted, but we haven’t yet adapt